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Protection of Civilians - ICRC statement to the UN Security Council, 2014

Source: International Committee of the Red Cross - Wed, 12 Feb 2014 12:00 GMT
Author: International Committee of the Red Cross
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Madam President, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased and honoured to brief the Security Council on a topic that is central to the ICRC's work and to our very identity. On behalf of the ICRC, my thanks go to Lithuania for the invitation.

As we meet here today and debate the problems and possible solutions to better protect civilians caught up in armed conflict, no amount of words alone will adequately convey the scale and depth of suffering of many of those civilians – nor, in all honesty, will they offer a way to end it.

In some of the diverse armed conflicts or other situations of violence in which the ICRC is currently working around the world – particularly in parts of the Middle East and Africa – the humanitarian impact of this violence on entire populations within and beyond national borders is so overwhelming that it almost defies description. When practically every man, woman and child in a particular country has been directly or indirectly affected by violence, and every family you meet has a heartbreaking story to tell, the need for decisive action rather than just words really does become a matter of life or death.

While the search for political solutions to a number of seemingly intractable conflicts continues, it is the role of humanitarian organisations like the ICRC to help alleviate the consequences of the fighting rather than to question its causes. Yet this role is becoming increasingly difficult to fulfil in many of today's most complex and violent crises.

There are various reasons for this. The overt politicisation of aid and polarisation of States around humanitarian issues is just one, reinforcing the need to clearly distinguish and separate principled humanitarian action from other aid initiatives. The widening gap between humanitarian needs and the ability to deliver an effective response is another, as is the decreasing proximity of many humanitarian actors to the people they try to help. Parties to armed conflicts – including complex webs of armed groups – that in many cases do not respect or accept impartial humanitarian action present another challenge, as do the ever-present security risks. Administrative hurdles, unjustified or arbitrary restrictions and delays often add to the problems.

All of these challenges are subsumed into the single most pressing issue for the ICRC in many contexts, which is to gain greater humanitarian access to people directly affected by violence, to be close to them and able to address their needs. Protection granted to civilians by international humanitarian law lies at the heart of the ICRC’s mandate and mission, and provides a framework for our assistance activities.

The issue of humanitarian access can be extremely contentious, as ongoing debates at the highest political levels have shown. For the ICRC, however, the issue is quite clear. Humanitarian access in situations of armed conflict is regulated by international humanitarian law, the rules of which must be respected by all parties to the conflict, both State and non-state. These rules unambiguously specify that States and other parties to the conflict have primary responsibility for the safety and well-being of populations in territories under their control. Where the basic needs of the population affected by the armed conflict are not met for whatever reason, the parties must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of humanitarian relief, which is impartial in character and conducted without any adverse distinction, although the parties retain a right of control.

This means that the offer of humanitarian services by a neutral, impartial and independent organisation such as the ICRC cannot be interpreted as a challenge to a State’s sovereignty, nor as recognition or support to any party to the conflict, and the offer cannot be refused on this basis.

We therefore take this opportunity to reiterate the ICRC’s appeal to all the State and non-State parties to even the most violent armed conflicts of today: respect the provisions of international humanitarian law, including those related to humanitarian access. The survival of countless vulnerable people may depend on it.

It is of course the general lack of compliance with international humanitarian law by States and non-State armed groups that presents the most critical challenge to the protection of civilians and that is at the root of the widespread suffering we are witnessing in various situations of conflict today.

For the ICRC, it is a critical aspect of our approach to engage with all parties to a conflict, including non-State armed groups, to remind them of their obligations under international humanitarian law and urge them to comply.

Of course, the ICRC’s approach is only one among an increasing number of actors – civilian and military – aiming for the protection of civilians with different mandates and ways of working. The United Nations, for one, has gone a long way in recent years to further integrate the issue of protection of civilians into its structural framework. The ICRC is committed to maintaining and further developing its highly constructive dialogue with the UN on operational and legal issues related to peacekeeping, and to lending its support and expertise in humanitarian law for the training of UN peacekeepers, both pre-deployment and on-site. Professional standards in protection work are of utmost importance, and in 2013 the ICRC published an updated guide on this issue. These standards could be used to inform the development and implementation of civilian protection strategies by UN peacekeeping missions.

In our daily work, the ICRC – and UN peacekeepers – are confronted with the consequences of the prevailing lack of compliance with international humanitarian law. One of the most widespread and daunting humanitarian problems arising from violations of this law – at least in terms of numbers – is that of internal displacement. This problem not only affects the many millions of IDPs themselves, but also countless host families and resident communities.

Better respect for international humanitarian law is key to preventing this problem in the first place, as well as to protecting people who have been displaced and easing their suffering. Humanitarian law, for example, prohibits the displacement of people except if it is necessary for imperative military reasons or for the protection of the civilians themselves. If there were better respect for the rules prohibiting direct attacks on civilians and civilian objects, and for those prohibiting indiscriminate means and methods of warfare, to take another example, fewer people would be compelled to flee their homes.

During displacement, IDPs are often exposed to further abuses and have wide-ranging subsistence needs. Conversely, but equally reprehensible, people are sometimes forcibly prevented from fleeing when they wish to do so. In both situations, it is crucial that parties to the conflict allow and facilitate humanitarian access so that the needs of affected people may be addressed in an impartial manner.

In many armed conflicts, the prevalent use of explosive weapons with wide impact in densely populated areas – with all the inherent risks of incidental or indiscriminate death, injury and destruction of homes and vital civilian infrastructure – further fuels displacement and inhibits return. The ICRC joins the Secretary-General in encouraging States to share information on their respective polices, operational practices and lessons learned on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This would contribute to informed discussions on this important humanitarian issue, and hopefully to the development of operational guidance by States.

Compliance with international humanitarian law provides protection during armed conflict and after the fighting has ended. Yet we watch in dismay as parties to conflict continue to flout the very rules that could lay the groundwork for recovery and an eventual return to stability. Fanning the flames of ethnic, religious and sectarian hatred and violence further exacerbates the problem, increasing the perennial instability and fragility of many conflict-affected States.

All of us here have a role to play in improving compliance with international humanitarian law. For our part, the joint Swiss-ICRC initiative to strengthen compliance with IHL – that continues to gain momentum and widespread support from States – is just one example to this end.

Ultimately, it is up to States and non-state armed groups – who are also bound by the provisions of international humanitarian law – to show the political will to translate legal provisions into actual deeds; to turn words and promises into concrete action; and to make the protection of civilians a meaningful reality.

Thank you.

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